Olympics Recap: Race, Gender, & Genetics

Barr bodies used to bar men from competing as women

Last week, I discussed the inadequacies of genetic-based gender verification. What I failed to mention was that at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico,

“Barr body detection was introduced and was widely proclaimed to be the solution to gender misrepresentation in sport. This reportedly ‘simpler, objective and more dignified’ test involved the cytological analysis of a buccal smear. The Barr body was first detected by Murray Barr in 1948 during research on the nervous system of cats – cells were analysed following electrical stimulation and a dark staining body was found in the nucleus of some animals and not others. The distinction was found to be related to sex and a similar finding was noted in human autopsies. The findings were published in Nature in 1949 and the nuclear marking became known as the Barr Body.“1

As it turns out the Barr body is actually an inactivated X chromosome found only in the cells of females. The genetic imbalance of having two X chromosomes in females and only one X chromosome in males means that the expression of X-linked genes in females can potentially be twice as high as that in males. A process called X-inactivation ensures that expression of X-linked genes are equal between sexes by “silencing” the gene expression from one copy of the X chromosome in every cell of the female body. As a result of this silencing, the inactivated X chromosome appears as a clump attached to the edge of cell nucleus.

Barr bodies appear as a darkly-staining bodies attached to the nuclear membrane (arrows)

In marsupials (kangaroos and other weirdo mammals) it’s always the paternal X chromosome that is silenced, whereas in placental mammals (us and most other normal mammals) the X chromosome that gets inactivated is selected randomly. This random inactivation means that not every cell in the female body is genetically equivalent–some cells are expressing genes from only the paternal X chromosome, while others are expressing genes from only the maternal X chromosome. A visual consequence of this random inactivation can be seen in tortoiseshell and calico cats since one of the genes responsible for coat color is found on the X chromosome.


Using Barr body detection to verify female gender in athletes, however, raised more issues than it solved. Barr bodies, although normally present in only female cells, can also be found in males with Klinefelter’s syndrome, who have an XXY sex karyotype. Using Barr body detection, alone, would have qualified these males to compete as females in the Olympics.

1) Ritchie R, Reynard J, Lewis T. Intersex and the Olympic Games. J R Soc Med. 2008 Aug;101(8):395-9. PubMed PMID: 18687862; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2500237. http://jrsm.rsmjournals.com/content/101/8/395.long

Maybe all Asians DO look alike?

The combination of Twitter, sports, and race generally makes for some cringe-worthy moments. Take for example, comments about Jeremy Lin made by Floyd Mayweather or the racist aftermath of Joel Ward’s winning goal that eliminated (my beloved) Boston Bruins. Unfortunately, this year’s Olympics was no exception:

Switzerland Olympic footballer expelled for alleged Twitter racism

Greece expels Olympic athlete over racist tweets

Japan’s Olympic soccer loss brings out the Twitter racism

North Korean Women’s National Soccer Team

One particular episode of Twitteracism during the Olympics that caught my attention was when some really observant people tweeted about how all the women on the North Korean National Soccer team had “the same face.” The old “you all look alike” stereotype is familiar to many Asians, and this made me consider if there were an ounce of truth to it. Maybe Asians are more homogeneous with respect to their physical features than other races/ethnicities. Admittedly, when I saw the North Korean team photo, even to my discriminating Asian eyes, I thought they all looked uncannily alike (you know, except for the one in orange). But, then again, so did the women on the Swedish team:

Sweden women’s national soccer team

The inability to distinguish, or discriminate, individuals of another race/ethnicity is a well-documented phenomenon called the “cross-race” or “other-race” effect. Current explanations for why the cross-race effect exists lie largely outside of my specialty and in the realm of sociology and evolutionary psychology. It’s often related to a concept known as in-group advantage or bias, where individuals within a group (in this case race or ethnicity) are viewed favorably over individuals from outside the group.

It is known that the cross-race effect is a general phenomenon observed in all races. That is to say that whites have just as much difficulty identifying Asians from other Asians, as Asians do in distinguishing whites from other whites. To help explain this, it has been suggested that certain races/ethnicities use different standards for discrimination. For example, one group might place more weight on hair color and eye color, whereas another group will rely more on shapes of facial features. Furthermore, psychologists recently identified a potential neurological basis for the cross-race effect. In a study published in PNAS, the researchers found that when study participants were shown “faces of people of a different race to their own, their neurons responded as if they were the same person, whether they were or not. The results were the same whether Caucasian volunteers were looking at East Asian faces or vice versa.” These findings that the cross-race effect is a phenomenon common to all races argue against my initial instinct that the effect could be simply explained by racial differences in the variability of physical features.

Let me be clear here, that the cross-race effect exists doesn’t absolve people of the racist crap they pull. Having difficulty distinguishing Asians in a group is one thing, but calling them all shemales is just offensive. And for the record, starting a statement with the “I’m not being racist, but” disclaimer immediately signals that whatever follows the “but” is going to be racist. Denying individuality to people of other races only contributes to racism. Not to mention that cross-race effects introduce bias in eyewitness testimonies that can lead to wrongful incarceration of people like Ronald Cotton, who was convicted of rape but was later exonerated by DNA tests. Lastly, as Bruce Reyes-Chow writes, “Sure, everyone is mistaken for someone at some point in time, but I simply do not think this happens to white folks as much as it does for people of color.” I suppose that explains why there were no tweets about the Swedish women’s soccer team.

The taboo of race and genetics in sports.

Ever wonder why it seems that East African runners dominate long distance races while runners of West African descent are the kings of sprinting? Jon Entine, writer of Taboo, argues that it mainly comes down to the genetic makeup of these two distinct populations that churn out elite, albeit different style, runners. This is not a new idea, in fact his articles in The Daily Beast and Forbes seem to be rehashes of his earlier writing. But this provocative idea, which invariably touches “the third rail of race,” will surely ruffle some feathers (for proof, see the comments section for each article).

Kenyan long distance runners

At the heart of his argument is that East Africans and West Africans have different physical packages that are favorable for particular styles of running. He then infers that the physical characteristics specific to each population are genetic, heritable traits. In The Daily Beast he writes, “Kenyans simply don’t seem to have the genetic package to make them world-class sprinters. But East Africans do tend to excel at long-distance running, and many suggest that’s due to an increased natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles.” That both populations are black, he would argue, are correlative coincidences–their black skin is indicative of shared ancestry but their success in different styles of running represents their genetic divergence. The fact that both populations are black and that they are the focus of his argument, however, cannot be escaped. (Although, later in the article he does discuss the traits that might lend specific athletic advantages to whites and Asians). Understandably, his arguments can appear like justifications for existing stereotypes, such as the stereotype of the naturally superior, black athlete or the slavery-bred black athlete, dressed up in genetics and science. The nuance of his premise is further muddled when he has to rely on racially-charged descriptors such as black and white.

Entine runs into a bit of scientific trouble as well. He cites little genetic evidence in support of his argument and, in fact, concedes the paucity of data. Instead, to bolster his claim, he points to the genetics of skin color–an analogy that is tenuous at best. “Do we yet know the specific genes that contribute to on-the-field success? No, but that’s not an argument against the powerful role of genetics in sports. We do not yet know all the factors that determine skin color, but we know that genetics determines it.” Except, we know a lot about the genetics of skin color, enough to safely conclude that genetics is a main determinant. And while many genes contribute to skin color, the major environmental factor that impacts skin color outcome is sun exposure. When considering athletic ability, however, Entine cites a host of physical characteristics that contribute to success: skeletal structure, muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, and lung capacity, for each of which it can be assumed is controlled by a whole set of genes. Entine is only able to cite one gene, ACTN3, a variant of which has been dubbed the sprint gene and “is more common in those of West African descent than in Europeans.” But as Dr. Daniel Macarthur, one of the discoverers of ACTN3, explains in his blog, “an excessive emphasis on ACTN3 as a major explanation for Jamaican success does a grave disservice to the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors required for top-level athletic performance.” This is a notion that is seconded by evolutionary biologist Dr. Joseph Graves in an interview with PBS, “all of those genetic factors have to be tempered in terms of the environment in which individuals train.” So, in the absence of such genetic data, what Entine has is a collection of observations and only a hypothesis to explain them.

Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt

But would it be surprising if, in the end, geneticists did “link human performance, including sports skills, to our DNA and more specifically to our ancestral roots—populations?” Not to me, and probably not for most geneticists. I might not have put it in such certain terms as Entine did, preferring instead, Steven Ross’s measured, hedging-his-bets quote, “There are…probably genetic as well as environmental reasons why Ethiopians make good marathon runners whereas Nigerians on the whole do not” [emphasis mine]. The problem again is not whether science will find the population genetics that underpin athletic skill, but the blurred line between what is meant by population and race (read the PBS interview of Dr. Graves for a discussion on this topic). At the end of Entine’s piece, he declares, “There’s no need to make consideration of race in sports a taboo.” But what I really think he means is that we shouldn’t let the social construct of race stop us from having a discussion of how the genetics of populations, which are genetically divergent or geographically-confined groups, might give individuals of that population a “leg up” in certain types of athletic competitions. The focus shouldn’t be that East and West Africans are black, but that their geographic separation might point to real genetic differences that account for their differing athletic skill sets. This discussion might be made easier, or be bolstered, if there were also such stark examples in “white” populations or in “Asian” populations.

Lastly, Entine does a fairly inadequate job of framing the taboo of race in sports: ‘every defeat encouraged simplistic, racist beliefs that blacks were an inferior “race,” too frail to handle extreme physical challenges and not smart enough to plan a race strategy. Even winning didn’t shatter the stereotype; racist whites just created a new one… black athletes succeed because of their “natural” athleticism.’ Although he points out the stereotypes that surround black athletes, he does little to explain why it’s taboo. Perhaps that’s because he’s written a book on the topic–which he amusingly plugs several times in the comments section (disclaimer: I have not read it). 

Compare that to Max Fisher’s treatment of the subject in the Atlantic:

Talking about the greatness of African athletes can be fraught in the Western world. Generations of American slavery were justified in part by arguments that Africans were “specialized” for physical labor, and whites for mental work, ideas that have persisted in American paternalism and racism through today. For a white writer like myself (or a white researcher or a white anthropologist) to talk about the physical attributes of black men and women can echo some of the worst moments in modern history. And there is something distasteful about reducing Africans to the prowess of their best athletes. After all, Kenya’s contributions to the world include, for example, great writers,environmentalists, and politicians.

It’s hard to talk about the subject without revealing some bias, or giving the impression of trying to explain away their success, or hitting on some still-fresh cultural wound from centuries of exploitation. This may be why definitive answers seem so hard to find, and why we tend to embrace theories that downplay legitimate biological distinctions and emphasize the idea that Kenyans simply work harder. But this kind of thinking, though clearly well intentioned, is a kind of condescension in itself. We’re so afraid of reducing Africans to their physical attributes that we’ve ended up reducing them to an outdated stereotype: Cool Runnings, the barefoot village boy who overcame.

Without properly discussing why it’s taboo, I imagine that Entine does little to engender his view with black readers. And if he’s unable to do that, then how does he expect to remove the taboo of discussing race from sports?

Related Reading:

Gender Verification at the 2012 Olympics: New IOC Regulations for Female Athletes

Sports, race, and the taboo…

5 responses to “Olympics Recap: Race, Gender, & Genetics

  1. Great piece – the final note about African runners was particularly enlightening. I don’t know if anyone can or will tackle it – it’s a dicey issue and one not easily discussed in the media or in a scientific setting.

    • Thanks for the comment. I had some reservations about broaching this subject myself. There were a few things that I also had wanted to touch on, such as why is it important or necessary to have the discussion that Entine is pushing. And also, is this just a stone throws away from the type of genetic determinism that might dissuade, say, an Asian from sprinting because he doesn’t have the right genetic package to start with.

  2. You said, “Using Barr body detection, alone, would have qualified these males [the ones with an XXY karyotype] to compete as females in the Olympics.” I’m wondering if the effect of the XXY karyotype would make it harder for someone with that combination to qualify for the olympics, thus maybe the gender test would never come up as a problem. The minimal research I did on the condition suggests that while some people have no discernible issues, many other have decreased muscle mass, etc.

    • Hi Man Fuel, you bring up a great point. I think in my haste to illustrate how an exception to the rules might discredit gender verification through Barr body detection, I overlooked what you are suggesting. A more appropriate example would be that Barr body testing would disqualify XY individuals who develop as females as a consequence of either having a defective SRY gene or complete androgen insensitivity syndrome–they would not have Barr bodies and thus fail the test. This is what happened to María José Martínez Patiño, a Spanish hurdler, who failed a Barr body test in 1985 at the World University Games held in Kobe, Japan. She had an XY karyotype but developed as a woman because she had androgen insensitivity syndrome.

      http://www.aissg.org/articles/MARIA.HTM
      http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/30/science/la-sci-olympics-gender-20120730

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